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Michael Bettencourt
Necro-Political Theatre
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october 2007

On Tuesday, September 11, Brian Stack, the doggedly self-promoting mayor of Union City, NJ, where I live, held an unveiling ceremony for a 9/11 memorial planted on a triangle of inhospitable public real estate dubbed "Liberty Plaza," bordered by two major urban roadways that are dangerous to cross to get to the site.  The memorial itself is a fairly generic slab of polished dark-grey stone etched with a picture of the twin towers and the usual boilerplate about "we honor" and "we will never forget."  At the bottom of the stone, in letters as prominent as the eulogy to the dead, is a citation that this memorial was commissioned by Mayor Brian Stack, etcetera, etcetera.  Call it a lithic form of campaign advertising.

To the right of the slab is a slice of a grey-painted angled steel I-beam jammed into a granite base incised with the phrase "World Trade Center."  (I don't know if the I-beam is an actual piece of either tower, but observers are clearly encouraged to believe that it is.)  All of this necro-political sculpture is surrounded by a sternum-high wrought-iron fence placed just far enough back to keep any human hand from actually having a tactile connection to the memorialized dead.  The artifact is meant to be observed, not cherished, to be official rather than personal, and what is meant to be observed, as is true of most of the memorial sculpture in this genre, is the political power of the living to define the memories that become the exclusive (and excluding) record of the historical event.

This scramble to (re)direct the peoples' gaze toward the meaning of 9/11 reaches something of a frenzy each year in New York on the actual date because, ironically enough, no one can agree on what the six-year old event means.  That is, no one person or group has been able to gather the powers -- moral, political, financial -- to emboss the event with an official profile (the way, for instance, World War II is now completely encased in the armor of the "good war" and the "greatest generation," thanks to Ken Burns and Tom Brokaw) .  So, in the interim, those who can appropriate it for their own purposes: the President to legitimize an illegitimate war, the governor and mayor to show the world New York's "resilience," Giuliani to promote the myth of his (non-existent) competence, the families of those who died to impose an endless regime of grief and shame.  Each of these, and many others, have, by now, dramaturged the event to their own specifications, honed the stage business to a razor-sharp timing, and produced a long and successful run promoting a managed message of doom and uplift.  Just like our intrepid and insipid Mayor Stack, they have turned a day of tragedy into cultural and political kitsch.

The fact is that six years out from that day, no one really knows what that day means.  Apart from engineering studies that document the physics of the collapse (and all of those are challenged by purveyors of various conspiracies), and the studies that will continue to show how incompetent and blindered was our vaunted expensive intelligence apparatus, September 11, 2001, has deliquesced into a memory, and as with all memories suffers from the intermittent amnesia and selective breeding for message that afflicts all human memory-making.

And what does "means" mean anyway?  In one way, 9/11 has no meaning at all, that is, it is not a term in a dictionary that one can look up and get its denotation and connotation.  9/11 is more like a Rorschach print, an arbitrary fractal image upon which people project whatever happens to be roiling around inside of them.  This is the only definition of "means" that makes sense in this case.

But this projection of what is inside to the outside is not without some cultural and political discipline and instruction.  To be sure, part of the projected package may include completely private fears and hatreds, but these are shined through the larger lens of the indoctrinations and tutorings we have all sculpted, and had sculpted for us, into that thing we call a "self" and an "I." Thus, the importance of creating a "Theatre of 9/11," as did our savvy Mayor Stack, in order to capture what attention-spans, and thus political influence, is out there to be snared.

To be sure, this is cynical manipulation, but it is on a continuum of theatre-making, not its antithesis.  All theatre, as does all art, seeks to manipulate a response out of an audience -- otherwise, why go to the bother of making it?  (Even if artists make art for themselves alone, I assume that they, the audience of one, want to be moved by what they make.) That continuum can run from what I call "journalistic theatre" (using a current event to teach the audience about that current event) to the absurdist wing, where the audience is meant to be challenged, even chastised, by bafflement.  "Necro-political theatre" obviously falls somewhere in-between, though it borrows elements from both extremes: it grounds itself in a current event in order to instruct us about that event (even if that "current" event is six years old -- part of necro-political dramaturgy is to try to immortalize something that is, in itself, time-specific) but also (though probably unintentionally, since necro-political theatre has no irony in it) absurdizes the situation by grafting onto it all sorts of ersatz mythology and religiosity that tip it into the realm of the fantastical.

All of this might be consigned to the academic world (fodder for PhD dissertations) if it didn't have such ramifying repercussions in the "real" world.  Necro-political theatre got us into Iraq and may propel us into Iran.  It has savaged our civil liberties and hollowed out any will for radical (even moderate) social and political change. And the "enemy" deploys its own necro-political theatre as well, doing a far better job at it than Bush's clumsy apparatchiks.

One cost for living in a virtualized world like ours, where image and a kind of pre-literary, infantile narrative model prevails over nuance and close reading, is an increase in gullibility and destruction.  An antidote?  Some form of theatrical criticism that peels away the excrescences and shows the nakedness of the Emperor and his empire. And it needs to be a theatrical criticism, using a theatre vocabulary and a dramaturgical logic to lance the boil.  Frank Rich is an expert at this (in part because he has been a theatre critic for a long time), as are writers like Alexander Cockburn and Katha Pollitt. But we can't leave it to them since they will never have the reach of a William Kristol or a Rush Limbaugh.  Each of us needs to become a savaging theatrical critic of the necro-politics that drive our polity today, or else there will be no polity left to criticize and thus redeem.

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About This Article

©2007 Michael Bettencourt
©2007 Publication Scene4 Magazine

Michael Bettencourt has had his plays produced
in New York, Chicago, Boston, and Los Angeles, among others.
For more of his commentary and articles, check the Archives


Scene4 Magazine-International Magazine of Arts and Media

october 2007

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